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Federal government turns to pharmacies to distribute vaccine

The federal government is accelerating a plan to distribute coronavirus vaccines through retail pharmacies, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday.

In a briefing with reporters, Azar and other officials from Operation Warp Speed acknowledged the slow rate of vaccine administration and said the administration is taking “immediate action” for states to speed up getting shots into arms.

The latest figures show that more than 17 million doses of the two authorized vaccines have been distributed, but only about 4.8 million doses had been given as of 9 a.m. Tuesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The partnership with more than 40,000 pharmacy locations from 19 chains will be one way for states to allocate doses of vaccine directly to these locations, Azar said. The original plan had been to ramp up the program over time because there isn’t enough vaccine supply to spread across all the pharmacies.

The CDC sent instructions to state health departments this week to allow states to “turn on” the process. The CDC is recommending that one or two pharmacy partners in each jurisdiction be selected to receive vaccines as part of the program, according to information sent to the states.

Most states are vaccinating the first priority groups of health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. But the process has been confusing because each state is deciding how to prioritize residents, how to set up immunization sites and how to train personnel to give the shots. In Florida, seniors have been lining up outside clinics overnight for first-come, first-served opportunities to get vaccinated.

“We would much rather see states move as quickly as possible and use every possible avenue to meet demand as places like Florida are trying to do than to leave vaccines sitting in freezers,” Azar said.

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He and other officials said states don’t need to complete vaccinating one priority group before moving to the next.

“It would be much better to move quickly and end up vaccinating some lower-priority people than to let vaccines sit around and states try to micromanage this process,” Azar said.

Washington Post

Arizona continues to have highest rate of new cases

The summer surge that raged across the Sun Belt started in Arizona. For more than a month, from early June until mid-July, the state added cases at the highest per capita rate in the country. Thousands died. Hospitals were stretched thin. At the peak, more than 3,800 cases were emerging each day.

As a new year begins, Arizona is again in dire shape, with a higher rate of new cases than any other state. Hospitalizations and deaths have surpassed records. Over the last week, the state has averaged more than 8,000 cases a day, more than double the summer peak.

“It shouldn’t have to have taken this amount of destruction for folks to take it seriously,” said Kristin Urquiza, who spoke of losing her father to the coronavirus at the Democratic National Convention last summer. In recent months, she said, she has been in Phoenix, helping her mother but also watching the city around her be overtaken by the virus that killed her father in June.

“There might be some hope that people will begin to think about it differently if they see it take hold of people they love,” she said.

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Yet the cases keep pouring in, with no sign of slowing and little indication, some Arizona health care leaders say, of the kind of widespread public vigilance that might bring the outbreak under control. At the same time, vaccines in the state are being administered at among the lowest rates in the country.

Arizona is by no means alone in its struggle. Nationally, it has become routine for more than 200,000 infections and more than 2,500 deaths to be announced in a single day. California, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Oklahoma are all identifying cases at extraordinarily high rates.

New York Times

N.C. nursing home employees refusing vaccine

Most nursing home employees in North Carolina are refusing coronavirus vaccines, the state’s top public health official said Tuesday, while the governor deployed the state’s National Guard to speed distribution.

“I caution it’s anecdotal, but we are definitely hearing that more than half [are] declining, and that is concerning,” Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told the Associated Press. She did not offer a reason for the refusals but compared North Carolina’s situation to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s recent comment that about 60 percent of his state’s long-term care staff have declined to be vaccinated.

North Carolina’s inoculation program is among the slowest in the nation. The state had administered 1,200 vaccine doses per 100,000 residents as of Wednesday morning, according to The Washington Post’s tracking. Only seven states and the Virgin Islands had given fewer.

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Cohen attributed the lethargic pace in part to a decentralized system that requires state officials to coordinate with 83 local public health departments, according to the Associated Press. She also blamed staffing shortages and unfamiliarity among some with the state’s technological systems.

Announcing his decision Tuesday to deploy the state’s National Guard, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper wrote on Twitter that vaccine distribution was his administration’s “top priority,” and that it would use all resources available to speed inoculations.

Washington Post

In Nebraska, illegal immigrants given lowest priority for vaccine

After briefing reporters Monday on plans to deliver coronavirus vaccines to Nebraska meatpacking plants, Republican Governor Pete Ricketts was asked whether undocumented workers would be included.

“You’re supposed to be a legal resident of the country to be able to be working in those plants,” Ricketts replied. “So I do not expect that illegal immigrants will be part of the vaccine with that program.”

When his comments quickly went viral, stoking outrage from critics, Nebraska officials rushed to clarify. Immigrants would still qualify for the vaccine, one Ricketts aide said, but those without legal status would have to wait at the back of the line.

“Nebraska is going to prioritize citizens and legal residents ahead of illegal immigrants,” the governor’s communications director, Taylor Gage, wrote on Twitter on Monday.

That approach still angered many advocates, who argue it could brew mistrust and scare immigrants away from an immunization campaign meant to reach as many people in Nebraska as possible. Despite the remarks from Ricketts, hundreds of undocumented workers do in fact work in the crowded, high-risk facilities deemed essential to the nation’s food supply, they say.

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“This virus isn’t discriminating based on immigration status,” Dulce Castañeda, an organizer with the activist group Children of Smithfield, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It doesn’t ask people if they’re a citizen, if they’re a resident, if they’re on a visa. So why would we ask that for vaccines?”

Washington Post